“If you, me and every person and thing in the cosmos were actually characters in some giant computer game, we would not necessarily know it.” 1
Increasing number of scientists are pondering the possibility that what we call reality is in fact a simulation, a “game” created by programmers and that we are players in that game. If that’s true, are you real?
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During the recent Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History, Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, said that he estimates the odds at “50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive.” Elon Musk, entrepreneur and Tesla Motors founder, puts the odds even higher: “(He) has said that there is only a “one in billions” chance that we’re not living in a computer simulation.” 2
University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum fuelled this debate back in 2003, “when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors. They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.” 3
This is a challenging thought. Just like none of us believe we are bad drivers, I’m sure none of us would say that we believe we are robots. But the simulation argument is compelling. In fact, Musk takes comfort in the odds vastly favoring that this world is a simulation. “… we should hope that it’s true that we live in a simulation. Otherwise, if civilization stops advancing, then that may be due to some calamitous event that stops civilization.” 4
His fascinating point is that if this is not a simulation it must mean that humanity failed to achieve the ability to create simulations, which suggests an interruption in our technological progress. In other words, if this is base reality, it may mean that humanity will be short lived.
There are plenty of reasons to believe we won’t be here for long! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to feel threatened. Statistics on climate change alone are frightening enough. It does take an idiot to deny the threats and apparently there is no shortage of idiots here in the 21st century, where success continues to be defined in measurements of personal achievement. Uh, what about survival as a species?
Let’s imagine for a moment that we are in a simulation and that we were all created, individually and as a species, by programmers of some kind. On the face of it, this seems to be a preposterous notion. However, it’s not that distant from religious beliefs. God, who is described in the Bible several times as “them,” created this world and placed humans in it, along with all the other species. Hmn, that sounds oddly familiar; it sounds exactly like what game programmers do: they invent a world and populate it with avatars.
Continuing along this exotic line of thought, what is the prevailing theme inside this reality of ours? Getting out of it! Whether it’s the religious notion of dying and going to heaven (or hell), the idea that death ends consciousness, or the notion of karma and past lives, most of us accept that “life” is an experience with meaning and some sort of end game purpose. We are here to learn, to be saved, to atone for past sins, etc. What’s common to all these beliefs is the human potential for transformation, for becoming our best or reaching enlightenment.
What if this is a translation of the common science fiction theme, centered on the question of if and when an artificial intelligence being might become conscious? What if our whole quest to “wake up” leads to the eventual breakthrough storytellers predict for A.I.? Someone / something is using some kind of technology to create our world and to create us. Is it possible that we might wake up (become conscious) in this game and, if so, what would be our reward? Could we become real, as Pinnochio yearned for? Could we graduate from this game and become programmers ourselves?
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